James Lovelock’s Influence On Me

by stephenpalmersf

I discovered James Lovelock’s work by accident. Hunting for environmental books one day in a secondhand bookshop, I saw one called Gaia. The blurb on the back was intriguing…

It was some time between the mid 1980s and 1988 when I picked up that book and bought it, little knowing what an impact it would have on me. When in 1988 I wrote the first draft of a novel that eight years later would become my debut Memory Seed, the notion of a self-regulating planet fired my imagination to new heights. I knew little of the controversy created by the Gaia Hypothesis at the time – all I knew was what an amazing idea it was, and how well supported by the evidence James Lovelock presented in his book. To me, Gaia’s existence was self-evidently true.

That was rather a naive view, I think, borne on sheer enthusiasm for the concept. Lovelock sophisticated his ideas throughout his later life, supporting it with better and more expansive evidence, so that many of the scientists who rejected the hypothesis when it was first proposed became convinced of its value. And indeed, Gaia Theory, as it is now, has made several predictions all tested in the real world and shown to be true.

My novel Memory Seed however did take a bit of a liberty with Lovelock’s idea. In 1992, when I wrote the second draft of the novel, all the main elements of the published book were present, including the concept of our planet “fighting back” against a humanity which has harmed it. That concept was meant to have both metaphorical weight and real weight. I regret this a little now, since of all people Lovelock found annoying, hippie types who misinterpreted his theory were the worst. However, I did not myself imagine Gaia to be a conscious entity taking deliberate decisions, my science background making the ideas of positive and negative feedback in self-regulating systems perfectly acceptable – and anyway, I had encountered them in my thinking about consciousness and AI. But I did take the metaphorical side of Gaia Theory a bit far in Memory Seed, allowing literary motives to outweigh scientific. I know it’s only fiction, but I do feel a bit bad about it all now.

In Urbis Morpheos I tried to reset the imbalance by conceiving of a scenario where an apparently active Gaia and an apparently active Agaiah, the former Gaia and the latter a construct of the manufacturing ecosystem, fight for control of planet Earth. I’m not entirely sure I succeeded, but, hey, it was SF set a million years in the future…

But back to James Lovelock. This was a man who had a life of extraordinary achievement. We shall not see his like again. Quite apart from the brilliance of the central idea of Gaia Theory, he also invented the electron capture device which allowed us to realise the danger of the ozone hole years before it otherwise would have become apparent, and invented numerous other amazing devices. He wrote superb, thought-provoking books of truth, of science, of deep knowledge. Perhaps above all he was a truly independent scientist, scorning and spurning the way science is done these days within vast, impersonal corporations in hock to capitalist masters. He had the opportunity to allow his mind to range widely, as almost no scientist these days does. He was one of a kind: a genius, an inspiration. I strongly suspect the main reason he survived to be 103 was that for all his days he had a profound meaning to his life: the advancement of humanity’s ideas about the planet we live on. I think David Attenborough also benefits from this attitude to life. Lovelock never stopped thinking, writing, working. His was a life of deep meaning, of wonder at the incredible planet we live upon. He will be missed, yet he will live on through his legacy; and that legacy, being scientific ideas proven to have universal truth, will be a part of humanity all the way into the far future.

He gave us a gift, wisdom, which is the greatest gift of all.